IAEA chief: Nuclear safety must be improved

June 20, 2011 - 8:44 AM
Austria UN Nuclear Safety

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano from Japan speaks during a news conference at the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety at the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, Monday, June 20, 2011. Amano urged a worldwide rethink of safety measures to prevent new nuclear disasters, declaring Monday that in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe

VIENNA (AP) — The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday urged a worldwide review of safety measures to prevent new nuclear disasters, but acknowledged that since his organization lacks the authority to enforce rules any improvements are only effective if countries apply them.

While some countries at the 151-member IAEA's meeting want any new safety regime to be mandatory, most prefer them to be voluntary and don't want a regulatory role for IAEA. If the IAEA cannot enforce safety standards, those rules will be only as good as they are being enforced by IAEA nations.

"Even the best safety standards are useless unless they are actually implemented," Amano said.

Asked outside the meeting if he would like to see the IAEA have the same authority against safety violators as it now has against nuclear proliferators — which includes referral to the U.N. Security Council — he said: "I do not exclude that possibility."

But he said a sense of post-Fukushima urgency dictated action now under existing rules.

"We have to move by days, weeks, months, and I cannot wait years" — the time it would take to revise the IAEA's mandate for the 35-nation board — he said. "We need to have a sense of urgency."

Outlining a five-point plan to strengthen nuclear reactor safety, Amano called for strengthening IAEA standards and ensuring they are applied; establishing regular safety reviews of all the world's reactors; beefing up the effectiveness of national regulatory bodies; strengthening global emergency response systems, and increasing IAEA input in responding to emergencies.

A draft of the conference's ministerial statement made available to The Associated Press showed that the gathering was content to work on upgrading present safety practices and emergency measures without giving the IAEA an enforcing role.

It called only for "a strengthened role of the IAEA in emergency preparedness and response by promoting and possibly expanding existing IAEA response and assistance capabilities." And it urged countries on the threshold of civilian nuclear programs to "create a nuclear safety infrastructure based on IAEA safety standards."

Amano also urged that the INES scale — which classifies nuclear incidents on a seven-point scale — be revamped. The March accident at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi accident was upgraded to seven - the highest on the scale — only on April 12. That was more than a month after a 9-magnitute earthquake and a devastating tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima reactor's cooling system and radiation started leaking into the atmosphere.

"Safety standards ... in particular those pertaining to multiple severe hazards such as tsunamis and earthquakes should be reviewed," Amano told the meeting. He proposed "IAEA international expert peer reviews" to complement national safety checks, and establishing stockpiles of emergency equipment by reactor operators to try and prevent a replay of Fukushima.

"Many countries have accepted (peer reviews) already; European countries, Japan, the United States," he told reporters outside the meeting. "I would like to expand it, so that all nuclear power plants will see a peer review on a random basis."

Speaking for Japan, Economics Minister Banri Kaieda pledged that his country "will take drastic measures to ensure the highest level of safety" for its reactor network.